According to SanjuBased on the decidedly unconventional life and times of one of Bollywood’s most controversy-ridden stars in the form of Sanjay Dutt, and starring one of the most exciting, chameleonic young actors working in Indian cinema today in the form of Ranbir Kapoor, it looked to be a very promising combination indeed.
It was clear from the get-go that the new Sanju wasn’t going to be your average Hindi film. Based on the decidedly unconventional life and times of one of Bollywood’s most controversy-ridden stars in the form of Sanjay Dutt, and starring one of the most exciting, chameleonic young actors working in Indian cinema today in the form of Ranbir Kapoor, it looked to be a very promising combination indeed.
But as much as I was looking forward to the release, I have to admit to a certain degree of skepticism about how truly candid such a film—essentially endorsed by the very man it sought to unpack—could be. There’s the title itself, for one: “Sanju”, with that intimate, affectionate tweak of the end syllable, already indicates a distinct tenderness towards the subject. And the director just so happens to be Rajkumar Hirani, the man behind the very popular Munna Bhai series that comprised Dutt’s “comeback” after a long and difficult hiatus from the screen, and who, by all accounts, is a close friend of the actor’s.
Having now watched the film in question, I’m afraid to say that skepticism was entirely warranted. Because Sanju—which focuses primarily on Dutt’s long, drawn-out battles with substance abuse and his eventual run-ins with the law, including incarceration, for possession of arms and links to the underworld—really doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about the superstar. It does try to flesh out the well-known broad beats somewhat, but the details it offers are often so melodrama-tinged, or alternatively, so farcical, that they have a suspicious air of make-believe about them.
Of course, on the flip side, if you were to push your expectations of honesty and objectivity to the side, then, on its own, Sanju does make for an undeniably enjoyable watch for the most part. Hirani and co-writer Abhijat Joshi are particularly adept in their examination of Dutt’s complicated relationship with his father Sunil Dutt (Paresh Rawal) and his friendship with Kamlesh (Vicky Kaushal), a Gujarati he befriends in New York. On the first count, the film communicates well the sheer pressure Dutt was under right from the time he was making his baby steps in the industry, living in his father’s immense shadow, the burden of having to carry forth that legacy while recognising deep down that he was never quite up to it. With the result that the young man looks for escape and comfort in the most dangerous of places; the depiction of the progression of Dutt’s addiction and the heartbreaking desperation with which his father tries to pull him back from the edge is among Sanju’s most effective aspects.
Then we have ‘Kamli’, a character apparently cobbled together from many different real-life figures in Dutt’s life, and whom Kaushal makes impossible to resist. Cultural stereotyping aside, there’s such instant chemistry between Kamli and Dutt from their first meet—in a hospital corridor, and such lovely, genuine affection, that you fully buy into this unlikely bromance. Seen thus, as a story about a man inclined to give in to self-destructive impulse every chance he gets and the loved ones determined to save him from himself, Hirani’s film works well. Had it stuck to that, dug deeper into Dutt’s mind rather than just enumerating his actions, Sanju might have felt more substantial. But the film begins to scatter in impact as it moves into the second half, particularly once the actor’s legal troubles get underway, and the whitewashing becomes more and more difficult to ignore.
I realise it’s probably asking too much to expect the no-holds-barred variety of storytelling in Sanju, particularly when the person it’s based on is still alive and kicking, and especially given that we’re talking about Bollywood, which doesn’t have the best of records when it comes to this sort of thing—biopics here have largely tended to be overly-reverent, saccharine affairs. While one can appreciate Hirani and Joshi’s efforts to touch upon Dutt’s many vices rather than sweep them under the rug, they also then kind of let him off the hook, either by turning a given weakness into something of a running joke—as in the case of his rampant womanising—or, more often, deflecting the blame on someone or something else.
Indeed, the film is all too eager to portray Dutt as a victim of certain extraordinary circumstances beyond his control and elicit our sympathy for the poor misunderstood fellow who seemingly just can’t catch a break. His drug habit and heavy drinking is blamed squarely on the strain he was under as the son of a cinematic legend and his mother’s illness and death. If that wasn’t justification enough, there’s also a sketchy drug dealer played by Jim Sarbh that we can collectively vilify for leading our hero down the wrong path. What about those firearms he bought? Well, he was simply trying to protect his family, that’s all. No biggie. And the rest of it? Just a case of fake news.
This last factor, the dressing down of the media—encapsulated neatly in an end credits song for which the real Dutt also shows up—feels particularly lazy among all the excuses Sanju makes for the actor, because it’s so under-nuanced and simplistic a complaint. That’s not to say Dutt did not suffer what the film claims he suffered, including his dealings with unethical, sensationalist journalists, but one wishes there had been a somewhat more objective examination of these issues rather than so rushing to absolve the actor of all fault in the matter and toss responsibility elsewhere.
But while we could argue about the film’s approach to its subject till the cows come home, there will, I’m sure, be little disagreement about how Kapoor has fared in the lead role: It’s an absolute stunner of a performance, and worth a star in rating on its own. While the promos for Sanju gave us glimpses into his transformation for the role—which, while certainly impressive, could’ve very well been gimmicky—what he does here is much more than sport a physical resemblance. There’s so much going on, from the voice to the gait to the gestures, and all without a hint of caricature; there really hasn’t yet been a greater showcase for Kapoor’s outsize talents. Rawal and Kaushal are terrific too in their supporting acts, but the women unfortunately get the short end of the stick with severely under-written, underdeveloped, and some downright embarrassing parts (re: Anushka Sharma’s character).
If stripped of the need for factual accuracy, Sanju is frequently a lot of fun. But it’s also difficult to compartmentalise the watching experience in this manner: the reason you’re in this seat, after all, is because of your familiarity with and curiosity about Dutt’s mythology, and the wish to see it deconstructed. In that respect, I was left wanting.
Director: Rajkumar Hirani
Actors: Ranbir Kapoor, Paresh Rawal,
Vicky Kaushal, Anushka Sharma